An unoriginal Obama quote, taken out of context

at 06:02 AM ET, 07/23/2012

“To say what he said is to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple Computer or that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft or that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor Company or that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s or that Papa John’s didn’t build Papa John’s Pizza. This is the height of foolishness. It shows how out of touch he is with the character of America. It’s one more reason his policies have failed. It’s one more reason why we have to replace him in November.”

— Mitt Romney, July 18, 2012

There are few original ideas in politics, just old arguments.

We were reminded of this as we considered the ruckus over comments by President Obama that his GOP rival, former governor Mitt Romney, criticized as an attack on free enterprise. Romney immediately began jabbing Obama on the campaign trail and the Romney campaign rushed out an attack ad focused on Obama’s words — though, as we shall see, it sliced and diced the president’s quote to make it seem much worse.

We will stipulate that taking snippets of quotes and twisting them is an age-old political tactic. In May, we gave Two Pinocchios to President Obama for performing out-of-context quote-snipping on Romney’s words. But that doesn’t make it right. Let’s take a look at what Obama actually said, and then how it has been interpreted.

The Facts

The president, during a campaign speech in Roanoke, tried to make the case that wealthy people need to have higher taxes in order to help serve the public good. Here is what he said, with the words used in the ad in bold type:

“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

The biggest problem with Romney’s ad is that it leaves out just enough chunks of Obama’s words — such as a reference to “roads and bridges”— so that it sounds like Obama is attacking individual initiative. The ad deceivingly cuts away from Obama speaking in order to make it seem as if the sentences follow one another, when in fact eight sentences are snipped away.

Suddenly, the word “that” appears as if it is referring to a business, rather than (apparently) to roads and bridges. (Granted, the president’s grammar is off.)

But instead of blaming Obama for bad economics, maybe Romney should have called Obama a plagiarizer. That’s because Obama’s words seem suspiciously similar to a speech last year by Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, which became a YouTube sensation (almost 1 million views).

Here’s what Warren said, making the point clearer than Obama did:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

But, then, maybe Warren is the plagiarizer? Here’s how President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in a message to Congress in 1935 :

“Wealth in the modern world does not come merely from individual effort; it results from a combination of individual effort and of the manifold uses to which the community puts that effort. The individual does not create the product of his industry with his own hands; he utilizes the many processes and forces of mass production to meet the demands of a national and international market.
“Therefore, in spite of the great importance in our national life of the efforts and ingenuity of unusual individuals, the people in the mass have inevitably helped to make large fortunes possible. Without mass cooperation great accumulations of wealth would be impossible save by unhealthy speculation. As Andrew Carnegie put it, ‘Where wealth accrues honorably, the people are always silent partners.’ Whether it be wealth achieved through the cooperation of the entire community or riches gained by speculation — in either case the ownership of such wealth or riches represents a great public interest and a great ability to pay.
“People know that vast personal incomes come not only through the effort or ability or luck of those who receive them, but also because of the opportunities for advantage which Government itself contributes. Therefore, the duty rests upon the Government to restrict such incomes by very high taxes.”

In other words, this is an argument that Democrats have been making for decades, one that Republicans have every right to reject. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for instance, understood fully that Obama was talking about roads and still thought his logic was faulty.

Romney, however, descends into silly season when he extrapolates Obama’s quote and says that means Obama believes Steve Jobs did not build Apple Computers.

Here’s what Obama said when Jobs passed away earlier this year: “By building one of the planet’s most successful companies from his garage, he exemplified the spirit of American ingenuity. By making computers personal and putting the Internet in our pockets, he made the information revolution not only accessible, but intuitive and fun.”

That sounds like Obama believes that Jobs really did build his company. He did not mention the roads to Cupertino.

The Pinocchio Test

Obama certainly could take from lessons from Warren or Roosevelt on how to frame this argument in a way that is less susceptible for quote-snipping. And Romney certainly could answer Obama’s argument by engaging in a serious discussion about whether the wealthy should pay much more in taxes as a matter of social good and equity. That would be grounds for an elevated, interesting and important debate.

But instead, by focusing on one ill-phrased sentence, Romney and his campaign have decided to pretend that Obama is talking about something different — and then further extrapolated it so that it becomes ridiculous. That’s not very original at all.

Three Pinocchios:

Three Pinocchios




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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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